The remarks echoed comments in his State of the Union, when the president tied socialism more directly to U.S. politics.
“We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair,” Trump said at the time. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
And on Tuesday, the Trump reelection campaign greeted Sanders’s entry into the presidential race with a backhanded compliment: “Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism. But the American people will reject an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run health care and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela.”
Trump has ample reason to be searching for a new political target. His wall is as good as dead. Even if last week’s controversial emergency declaration succeeds, it will do so only after months or years of court battles, and will produce less than 250 miles of construction. His attempts to use House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a foil have proved fruitless.
Thus his turn to socialism, a tried-and-true bogeyman in American politics. Trump equating the failure of the Chavista state in Venezuela with the European-style reforms proposed by Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and others is dishonest. There’s room to criticize proposals like Medicare for all and free college tuition as unrealistic or unwise without hyperbole. Trump and his allies have also offered exaggerated, inaccurate descriptions of the Green New Deal. This is hardly a concern for Trump, who’s built his business and political careers on exaggeration.
Though it feels like a Cold War throwback, the socialism epithet might be effective. It could resonate with a wider swath of the public than some of Trump’s other signature lines. The border wall, for example, is unpopular with Americans overall, though very popular with the president’s core supporters. By contrast, voter antipathy toward socialism is much broader: In a February Fox News poll, 59 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view. As of 2015, half of Americans said they wouldn’t vote for a socialist (though only 38 percent of Democrats held that view).
Some Republican politicians and conservative outlets worked extensively to paint former President Barack Obama as a socialist during his presidency, with mixed results. They were unable to prevent Obama’s reelection but may have circumscribed his ability to enact policies; claims of socialism dogged the market-based Affordable Care Act for years, and its standing only improved when the GOP began to attempt repeal. (Some libertarians have complained that Trump’s own policies, from tariffs to farm subsidies to intervention in corporate decisions, constitute their own form of creeping socialism.)